By Shelly Orenstein (Managing Editor, Scholastic Magazine)
The story of the Native American—or American Indian—is one that is unique, tragic and ultimately inspiring. It is unique because the Indians were the original inhabitants of the American continent and experienced every phase of its European settlement, from the earliest 17th century colonies to the closing of the western frontier at the end of the 19th century. It is tragic because the conflict between the Indians and whites paralleled the experience of traditional peoples throughout the world who have come in contact with expanding, industrialized societies. It is an inspiring story because the Native Americans although dispossessed of much of their land in the 19th century, have survived, have asserted their political and economic rights, and have succeeded in retaining their identity and culture despite the onslaught of modern civilization.
In the state of Wisconsin, Chippewa Indian children are using computers to learn the language of their ancestors. Says one Chippewa father: "It is important for them to learn Ojibway in order to understand the spiritual aspects of our religion."
Today, Native Americans are full citizens of the United States who are proud to be Americans. However, they are equally proud of their own cultural heritage, and, though it is difficult in the modern world, they are trying to protect and maintain it.
Marks of that heritage can be found all over the United States. Many of the names on United States maps—Massachusetts, Ohio,
Painting of Pawnee Indian warriors by artist Charles Bird King. The Pawnee are a tribe which lived in what is now the state of Nebraska where they raised corn and hunted buffalo. In 1875 they moved to lands in what later became the state of Oklahoma. National Collection of Fine Arts
Michigan, Kansas, Idaho and more—are Indian words. The Indians taught the Europeans how to cultivate crops such as corn, tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco. Canoes, snowshoes and moccasins are all Indian inventions. Indian handcrafted artifacts such as pottery, silver jewelry, paintings and woven rugs are highly prized.
About 62 percent of the Indians in the United States live in large cities and rural areas scattered throughout the country. The remainder live on about 300 federal reservations (land set aside for their use). Together, the reservations comprise 52.4 million acres (21 million hectares) of land, or about 2.5 percent of the land area in the United States. Most reservations are located west of the Mississippi River.
In recent decades, the Native American population has been increasing steadily. Today, there are about 1.9 million Native Americans (0.8 percent of the total population of the United States), which is believed to be more than there were when the first European explorers arrived in the New World. At that time, about one million Native Americans were living in North America. These people were soon overwhelmed by a flood of European settlers. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, there were some 4 million whites and 600,000 blacks—mostly slaves— living on the continent. Just 40 years later, the white population had swelled to 12.9 million and the black population to 2.5 million. In 1990 there were 251,400,000 people living in the United States.
As European civilization spread rapidly across the continent, the native population declined. Disease and warfare took their toll. By 1920, the Indian population had fallen below 350,000. For a time it seemed the Indians would vanish.
The transfer of land from Indian to European—and later American—hands was accomplished through treaties, war and coercion. It was accompanied by a long struggle between the Indian and European ways of life. In many ways, the history of the United States is the story of this struggle.
WHO WERE THE INDIANS?
In 1492, an Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in search of a sea route to Asia. Columbus hoped to obtain access to the wealth of spices, silks and gold for which the Asian continent was famous. Six weeks later, his men sighted land.
Thinking he had landed in the Indies, a group of islands east of the coast of Asia, he called the people on the first island on which he landed "los Indios," or, in English, "Indians." Of course, Columbus had not reached Asia at all. He had landed in the New World (the American continent). But the name "Indians" remains fixed in the English language.
Though Columbus had one name for them, the Indians comprised many groups of people. The Indians north of Mexico in what is now the United States and Canada spoke over 300 languages. (Some 50 to 100 of these languages are still spoken today.) And they lived scattered across the continent in small bands or groups of bands called tribes. To them, the continent was hardly new. Their ancestors had been living there for perhaps 30,000 years.
Scientists speculate that people first came to North America during the last ice age. At that time, much of the earth's water was frozen in the glaciers that covered large parts of the globe. As sea levels dropped, a strip of land was exposed in the area that is now the Bering Strait. Man probably followed the big game he was hunting across this land bridge from Siberia into Alaska.
Over time, these people increased in
number, adapted to different environments and spread from the far northern reaches of Alaska and Canada to the tip of South America.
Some groups, such as the peaceful Pueblo of the American Southwest, lived in busy towns. They shared many-storied buildings made of adobe (mud and straw) bricks. They grew corn, squash and beans.
Their neighbors, the Apache, lived in small bands. They hunted wildlife and gathered plants, nuts and roots. After acquiring horses from the Spanish, they made their living by raiding food and goods from their more settled white and Indian neighbors.
In the eastern woods of the North American continent, the Iroquois hunted, fished and farmed. Like the Pueblo, they were excellent farmers, and 12 varieties of corn grew in their communal fields. Their long houses, covered with elm bark, held as many as 20 families. Each family had its own apartment, on either side of a central hall.
The Iroquois were fierce warriors. They surrounded their villages with wooden stockades to protect them from attack by their neighbors. They fought for the glory of their tribe and for the glory of individual warriors.
The Indians of the North Pacific coast harvested ocean fish and seafood. Tribes like the Haida lived in large plank houses with elaborately carved doorposts. These were called totem poles, and the figures on them were a record of the history of the family which lived in the house.
Many Indians were fine crafts workers. They made pottery, baskets, carvings and wove cotton and plant-fiber cloth. They traveled in small boats and on foot, never having developed the wheel. Some, such as the Plains Indians, used dogs to pull a load-carrying frame called a travois. Others, such as the Winnebagoes of the Midwest developed a sophisticated calendar that took the motions of both the sun and the moon into account.
Different as they were, all tribes were greatly affected by the coming of the white man, with his firearms, iron cooking pots, horses, wheeled vehicles and with his diseases, to which the Indians had no immunities. The European arrival changed the Indian way of life forever.
Other Europeans quickly followed Columbus to the New World. Spanish settlers arrived in North America in the early 1500s. They settled in what are now Florida and California and in the southwest section of the continent. They sent missionaries to bring Christianity and "civilization"—farming, crafts and so on—to the "Indians," and they forced the Indians to labor in their fields, mines and houses.
Other Europeans, such as the French and the Dutch, came to the New World in search of profit. Some came to fish the rich waters off of the Atlantic coast; many came to trade with the Indians. They exchanged guns, iron tools, whiskey and trinkets for beaver and otter pelts.
Most often, though, the Europeans came to establish new homes; they came to farm. And for that they needed land. At first, the Indians were glad to share their land and their food with the Europeans. The American holiday of Thanksgiving celebrates this Indian generosity. The first to celebrate it were the Pilgrims, a group of English settlers who arrived in
America in 1620. They gave thanks for having survived their first year in the harsh American wilderness. But there would have been no Thanksgiving had it not been for the Indians.
The Pilgrims arrived on the shores of Massachusetts in November and survived their first winter with help from the Wampanoag and Pequamid Indians who shared corn with them, and showed them where to fish. Later, they gave seed corn to the English settlers and showed them how to plant crops that would grow well in the American soil.
THE QUEST FOR LAND
To the Europeans, much of the Indians' land appeared vacant. The Indians didn't "improve the land" with fences, wells, buildings or permanent towns. Many settlers thought the Indians were savages and that their way of life had little value. They felt they had every right to farm the Indian lands.
On Manhattan Island, the present site of New York City, beaver, deer, fox, wild turkey and other game (wild animals) were plentiful. The Shinnecock Indians used the island for fishing and hunting, but they didn't live there. In 1626, the Dutch "bought" the island from them. The Shinnecock did not understand that once the land was sold, the Dutch felt it was their right to keep the Indians off. Like most Indians, they had no concept of private property.
The Indians believed that the land was there to be shared by all men. They worshipped the earth that provided them with food, clothing and shelter. And they took from it only what they needed. They didn't understand when the settlers slaughtered animals to make the woods around their towns safer. They didn't like the roads and towns that to them, scarred the natural beauty of the earth.
To the Europeans, game existed to be killed and land to be owned and farmed. Many did not bother to discuss with the Indians whether or not they wanted to give up their land. To make room for the new settlers, hunting lands, fields, even Indian towns were seized through war, threats, treaties or some combination of the three.
Small Indian bands and tribes could do little against the well-armed and determined colonists, but united, they were often a more powerful force. King Philip, a Wampanoag chief, rallied neighboring tribes against the Pilgrims in 1675. For a year, they fought bloody battles. But even his 20,000 allies could do little against the numerous colonists and their guns. By 1700, few remnants were left of the tribes that had greeted the Pilgrims.
The Iroquois, who inhabited the area below Lakes Ontario and Erie in northern New York and Pennsylvania, were more successful in resisting the whites. In 1570, five tribes joined to form the most democratic nation of its time, the "Ho-De-No Sau-Nee," or League of the Iroquois. The League was run by a council made up of 50 representatives from each of five member tribes. The council dealt with matters common to all of the tribes, but it had no say in how the free and equal tribes ran their day-to-day affairs.
No tribe was allowed to make war by
itself. The council passed laws to deal with crimes such as murder.
The League was a strong power in the 1600s and 1700s. It traded furs with the Britisl It sided with the British against the French in a war for the dominance of America from 1754 to 1763. The British might not have won that war without the support of the League of the Iroquois. In that case, North America might have had a very different history.
The League stayed strong until the American Revolution. Then, for the first time, the council could not reach a unanimous decision on whom to support. Member tribes made their own decisions, some fighting with the British; some with the colonists, some remaining neutral. As a result, everyone fough against the Iroquois. Their losses were great and the League never recovered.
At the time of the American Revolution, the western boundary of the United States was the Appalachian Mountains. Land had become expensive in the colonies and many people were eager to settle the wilderness that lay beyond those mountains.
Armed with only an ax, a rifle and their own self-confidence, these people carved settlements out of the forests of Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.
The Indians fought these invaders of their hunting grounds with a vengeance. Encouragec by the French or the British, who were trying t< retain control of the lands west of the United States, Indians attacked frontier settlements. The white settlers struck back, sometimes massacring entire Indian villages. Indian warfare quickly became a part of frontier life.
At first, the new United States government tried to keep the peace by discouraging settlements beyond the mountains. "The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty they never shall be invaded or disturbed..." read the Northwest Ordinance, designed to regulate the settling of the new frontier. But the frontier was far away and "good faith" was rarely demonstrated.
The United States tried different ways of dealing with their "Indian problem." Basically, they all boiled down to this: The Indian had to be either assimilated or removed farther west to mak< room for the European civilization the white Americans felt was destined to rule the continent.
In 1817, President James Monroe wrote: "The hunter or savage state, requires a greater extent of territory to sustain it, than is compatible with the progress and just claims of civilized life, and must yield to it. Nothing is more certain, than, if the Indian tribes do not abandon that state, and become civilized, that they will decline, and become extinct."
The Indians' only chance for survival, felt Monroe, was to be removed to an area where they would not be disturbed by the settlers. Given time to learn civilized ways, or to practice their own way of life, they could survive.
And so, in 1830, the United States passed the Indian Removal Act. All Indians in the East would be removed to lands set aside for them west of the Mississippi River.
One of the tribes slated for removal was
the Cherokee. Ironically, the Cherokee had already adopted many of the white man's ways. Many owned large farms and brick homes in the state of Georgia. Their towns had stores, sawmills, blacksmith shops, spinning wheels and wagons.
In 1821, a Cherokee named Sequoyah developed a written language for his people. Using his 85-character alphabet, the Cherokee printed Bibles and a newspaper. They adopted a constitution modeled on that of the United States government.
Like Monroe, some whites thought removal was a way of saving the Indian peoples. Others saw it as a way to get more land from the Indians. When gold was discovered on Cherokee land, pressure for removal mounted.
A few Cherokees were willing to move to the new lands. Though they did not represent the Cherokee nation, they signed a treaty with the American government agreeing to the removal of the Cherokees.
The peaceful Cherokees were removed by force from their homes and forced to march overland to Indian Territory, in what is now the state of Oklahoma. The difficult journey took three to five months. In all, some 4,000—one quarter of the Cherokee nation—lost their lives in the course of this removal. This shameful moment in American history has come to be called "The Trail of Tears."
In 1803, the United States bought a huge block of western land from the French. Called the Louisiana Purchase, the new lands stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. It doubled the area of the United States. It was to this vast, "far away" land that the Indians were removed.
Just 15 years later, the United States went to war with Mexico and won yet another vast territory stretching from Texas to California. In 1849, gold was discovered in California. Miners traveling to the gold fields often moved directly through the Indian Territory that was supposed to be undisturbed by whites.
The trip to the new lands in California and Oregon took six months by horse-drawn wagon. But in 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was finished, that same trip could be made in six days. This made it much easier for the settlers to move westward.
On the Plains, tribes such as the Sioux roamed on horseback, hunting the buffalo that ranged there. The buffalo gave them everything they needed to live. They ate its meat. They used its skin and fur to make clothing. They stretched its hides over a frame of poles to make the tepees, or tents, they lived in. They carved buffalo bones into knives and tools. The clothing of the Plains Indians was decorated with bead work, and their hair with eagle feathers. These were the proud Indians depicted in television dramas and films about the American West.
The Sioux allowed the wagon trains heading west to pass through their lands. But then whites began to settle the Plains. At first, the Sioux made treaties with the government, giving up large pieces of their land. In return, the government promised them peace, food, schools, supplies and the fair arbitration of all conflicts. One such treaty was the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. It solemnly declared the vast lands between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains to be Sioux territory, on which whites were prohibited from passing or settling.
Six years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a land the Sioux considered sacred. A gold rush was on, and the treaty of Fort Laramie was ignored. The United States tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux. But the Sioux refused. Crazy Horse, a great Sioux chief, summed up their feelings: "One does not sell the Earth upon which the people walk."
At the same time, the buffalo that the Sioux depended on had begun to disappear. The land they roamed was being fenced by farmers and ranchers. And whites began to hunt the buffalo for sport and for its hide. In 1850, there were still 50 million buffalo on the Plains. By 1885, there were almost none.
By 1871, the American government had determined that the treaty was no longer an appropriate means of regulating Indian-white relations and that no Indian nation or tribe should be recognized as an independent nation or power. Agreements continued to be worded as treaties, but they were in fact laws governing individual behavior. The American government pressured the Indians to give up their traditional way of life and to live only on reservations. Many resisted. One was Sitting Bull, a Sioux leader. "We lived in our country in the way our fathers and fathers' fathers lived before us," he said, "and we sought trouble with no men. But the soldiers came into our country and fired upon us and we fought back. Is it so bad to fight in defense of one's country and loved ones?"
The Sioux delivered some stunning defeats to the United States cavalry. Among them was "Custer's Last Stand" in 1876 at the Little Big Horn River, where a whole company of cavalry was killed. But the Indians could not live on the Plains without the buffalo to feed them. Half starved, they eventually surrendered and came to live on the reservations.
In 1890, unrest developed, resulting from the rapid advance of settlers, the failure of the government to keep many of its treaty agreements, the suffering and dependence of the Indians caused by the disappearance of game and crop failures, the spread of diseases and the resentment among some Indians of an agreement which reduced the size of the Sioux reservation. A messianic movement grew, characterized by a belief among the Indians of a miraculous re-establishment of Indian supremacy and the return from the dead of ancient warriors. It was symbolized by the "Ghost Dance" and spread among the disaffected numbers of several tribes. These Indians left the reservations and banded together. At Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a bloody confrontation between this group and an American cavalry regiment resulted in over 300 deaths—mostly Indian—and marked the end of all hope for a return to the Indians' traditional way of life on the Plains.
THE RESERVATION SYSTEM
By 1890, almost all of the West, from the prairies to the Pacific, had been settled by cattle ranchers, farmers and townspeople. There was no more frontier, no mountains beyond which the Indians could live undisturbed. Most were
confined to reservations. The government had promised to protect the remaining Indian lands. It had also promised supplies and food. But poor management, inadequate supplies and incompetent or dishonest government agents led to great suffering on the reservations. Diseases swept through the tribes and for a while it seemed as though the Indians really were a vanishing race.
Some people were aware of the poor conditions on the reservations. A writer named Helen Hunt Jackson heard Ponca chief Standing Bear speak about the sufferings of the dispossessed Plains Indians. His words moved her to write A Century of Dishonor in 1885. Her book and her efforts helped bring the plight of the Indians to the attention of the nation.
To survive, many believed, the Indians would have to adopt white ways. On the reservations, Indians were forbidden to practice their religion. Children were sent to boarding schools away from their families.
By the General Allotment Act of 1887, each Indian was allotted 160 acres to farm. But there was no magic in owning private property. Many Indians had no desire to farm. Often, the land given them was unfertile. After each Indian was given his plot, the government sold the remaining lands to white settlers. The result was disastrous: By 1934, Indian land holdings had been reduced from 138 million acres (56 million hectares) to 48 million (19 million hectares).
ÄA NEW DEAL EOR THE INDIANS
In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which declared all Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States to be citizens. The origin of this act can be attributed to the increased respect of white legislators for the Indians which resulted from their exemplary contribution during World War I. The Act was passed after a period of agitation by pan-Indian groups and by friends of the Indian who demanded enlarged political rights for American Indians and an end to the paternalistic policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1928, presidential candidate Herbert Hoover selected Charles Curtis, a Kaw Indian from Kansas, as vice presidential candidate.
However, it wasn't until 1934 that the Indians got a "New Deal." The Indian Reorganization Act encouraged the Indians to set up their own governments and ended allotment on the reservations. It halted the policy of trying to persuade or coerce Indians to give up their traditional culture and religion. In 1946, the government set up the Indian Claims Commission to deal with claims of unfair treatment or fraud. In the 32 years the Commission operated, it awarded $818 million in damages.
The United States was becoming proud of its diverse population. And that included a desire to recognize its Native Americans and to try to compensate them for the unfair treatment they had received.
INDIAN POWER & INDIAN RIGHTS
At a time when blacks were protesting violations of their civil rights, Indians, too, took their protests to the American public. In the mid-1960s, they called for an "Indian
Power" movement to parallel the "Black Power" movement. In 1972, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and other Indian rights groups staged a protest march on Washington called the "Trail of Broken Treaties."
In 1973, national attention once again focused on Wounded Knee, South Dakota. AIM occupied the small village there for 71 days. They demanded the return of lands taken in violation of treaty agreements.
Indians today continue to fight for Indian rights, although less militantly than AIM did in the early 1970s.
Books such as Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and Custer Died for Your Sins, by Sioux author Vine DeLoria, one of a number of widely read Indian authors, have helped bring the Indian cause to the attention of the American public.
Many Indians have united to fight in the political arena for Indian rights. Groups such as The National Tribal Chairman's Association, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Youth Council watch out for Indian interests in Washington.
Recently, many tribes have carried on the battle for Indian rights in court. They have sued for the return of lands taken from their ancestors. In 1972, two tribes, the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy of Maine, sued for the return of 12.5 million acres of land (five million hectares)—58 percent of the state of Maine—and $25 thousand million in damages. The tribes settled for $81.5 million dollars from the federal government in 1980 and invested the money, in the name of the tribes, in a variety of profitable business enterprises operated by members of the tribe.
The Sioux in South Dakota sued for the return of the Black Hills, seized from them in 1877. They were awarded $122.5 million. But many do not want to accept the settlement and continue to fight for the return of the sacred land itself.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
Many of the attempts by individual Indians and by tribes to respond to white society rather than accept victimization by it have been highly successful. Two examples are the prosperous Crow and Blackfoot reservations in Montana, on which these two tribes have established and manage a profitable complex of industrial and service-oriented enterprises.
However, in spite of many gains made by the Indians, they still lag far behind most Americans in health, wealth and education. In 1988, the unemployment rate on Indian reservations averaged 64 percent—ten times the national rate. And 27 percent of Native Americans lived below the poverty line—that is, they earned less than the government considered necessary for a decent lifestyle. Diabetes, pneumonia, influenza and alcoholism claim twice as many Indian lives as other American lives.
Since the 1950s, the government has helped Indians who want to move from the reservations to cities. A few have found highly paid jobs in business, education, law and medicine. But most urban Indians still lack the education and job training to find skilled jobs. Many end up trading rural poverty for urban slums.
Life on the reservations varies greatly.
The Navajo reservation, located in parts of three states in the Southwest, is the nation's largest. It is also one of the poorest. Its 16 million acres (6,667,000 hectares) are home for 160,000 Indians. Government housing stands side by side with mobile homes and hogans. These eight-sided, one-roomed traditional Navajo homes are made from logs and have an earthen roof. Many reservation homes lack electricity and plumbing. The reservation has few towns and few jobs. Unemployment on the reservation ran 48 percent in 1988.
In contrast, the Mescalero Apache reservation nearby in New Mexico is one of the nation's wealthiest. It sits on 460,384 acres (186,390 hectares) in some of the highest mountains in the area. The tribe owns and operates a logging company and a cattle ranch. Both are multimillion dollar businesses. They recently built a $22 million luxury resort offering everything from skiing to horseback riding. Three quarters of the reservation's inhabitants live in new two-story houses built on large plots of land. Most who want to work do. Presently, white managers help to run some of their businesses. But the aim of the Apaches is independence—they hope to take over management of all of their own programs.
In all, the Indians signed 370 treaties with the United States. In return for Indian land, the government promised to protect their remaining lands and resources. Government funds support many reservation programs. Since 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has been responsible for Indian lands, resources and programs. But slowly, Indians are gaining a stronger voice in determining how the reservations are operated.
Today, most reservations are governed by a tribal council. Many run their own police forces, schools and courts that try minor offenses.
Like the Apache, the aim of most Indian tribes is to become self-supporting. They are trying to attract businesses to the reservations. Others hope that the natural resources on their reservations will provide much needed income. The Navajo, for example, possess oil, coal and uranium reserves. Other reservations are rich in timber, gas, minerals and water.
In the past, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has negotiated the leases between tribes and private companies developing reservation resources. Today, tribes are taking a larger economic role. But the Indians have mixed feelings about development. "What do we do when we want to extract mineral resources from the earth, our mother?" asks Peterson Zah, chairman of the Navajo nation. "Will we dig out our mother's beautiful face to squeeze out this energy for ourselves and for others? Will we go that far?"
Today, most Indians hope for the best of both worlds. Says college-educated Fred Kaydahzinne, great-grandson of a famous Apache warrior: "My generation spent all our time learning the white man's ways. We mastered them, but we lost a lot of Indian heritage. Now we are trying to regain what we have lost."